FEB 27, 2022
Drone delivery of blood in Rwanda
Health plays an important role in many aspects of our lives. However, especially in more rural, poorer or hard-to-reach areas, health has a high priority. This is also the case in Rwanda. After the civil war and genocide in the country, Rwanda developed and modernised rapidly in the 1990s. In addition to focusing on improving the technological infrastructure, the Rwandan government has invested heavily in health care and ensured that health facilities are modernised. However, it is not the built infrastructure that is the problem, but the roads leading to them. Thus, Rwandan roads are a major issue for health facilities, which are in urgent need of basic health care. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the terrain in Rwanda is very hilly and challenging. Secondly, traffic conditions on Rwanda's roads are unfavourable for transporting medical supplies by ground vehicles. Traffic on the highways is often slow thanks to the cumbersome trucks, and roads in rural areas are either makeshift or not paved at all. As a result, the transport of medical supplies on Rwanda's roads can be severely delayed by clogged main roads or gravel roads that are difficult to navigate. In emergency situations, 5 hours can pass before a hospital receives the necessary blood supply, which can mean death for the patient.
One solution to this problem is to transport medical supplies by drone from the air. A distance of 50 kilometres in Rwanda can mean an hour's travel time. In comparison, a drone can cover the same distance in less than 14 minutes. California-based Zipline has set out to address this problem in Rwanda by solving the delivery of medical supplies to areas with poor infrastructure through on-demand deliveries by drone. The company has set up two centres in Rwanda, known as "nests", from which 25 hospitals and clinics across the country can be supplied with blood. For this purpose, Zipline uses specially designed fixed-wing drones ("Zips") that have been developed for the delivery of blood. This can shorten the delivery of a unit of blood to half an hour or less.
If a health facility needs blood, it can be ordered via website, WhatsApp or SMS, for example. The blood unit is then wrapped in padding with an attached parachute by a Zipline employee and stowed in the drone. Before the drone can take off, a checklist is worked through via a smartphone app. Once Zipline has received permission to fly from the Rwandan Civil Aviation Authority, the drone is launched into the air with a 13-metre electric catapult. In the air, the drone autonomously headed for the target. When the fixed-wing drone reaches the target, a health facility worker is notified that the blood delivery has arrived at its destination. The drone then drops a small package containing the blood unit, which falls to the ground with the parachute. In this way, it is possible to carry out 20 to 30 blood deliveries per day by drones and bring them to regions up to 80 km away. One problem here is still that the drones can only carry a payload of 1.3kg, which is roughly equivalent to two units of blood.
Ackerman, E., & Koziol, M. (2019). The blood is here: Zipline's medical delivery drones are changing the game in Rwanda. IEEE Spectrum, 56(5), 24-31. doi:10.1109/MSPEC.2019.8701196